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High-Rise Lowbrow

Photos by Ewen Spencer

Pills, pubs and cell phones; tabloids, text messaging and teeming raves; KFC and Macca-D’s; kebab shops, snakebite, boredom & brawling, PlayStation, pot, soccer, superstrength lager, Chinese takeout, cars, curry, nights out with the boys, ogling the girls, chips, trips to (and in) Amsterdam, nights in with the girlfriend, hung-over greasy-spoon breakfasts, looking for love, dealing with dealers: Not since the Specials and the Jam has anyone corralled the gritty collage of British suburban youth culture into four-minute capsules like upstart rapper the Streets (a.k.a. Mike Skinner), whose debut album, 2002’s home-recorded Original Pirate Material, made him a chart-topper in Blighty and a name-to-drop cult act stateside.

For those encountering the words British and rapper in the same sentence for the first time, the Streets’ kaleidoscopic sound, lately tagged “high-rise” (for the grim apartment towers that still blight many British cities), is a hard-to-tame mongrel: Beneath the H-less Birmingham-London lilt of his almost spoken-word delivery (Skinner’s style often recalls slam poetry) lurk ska, Jamaican dub, hip-hop, raw drum & bass rhythm sections, house music’s hard loops, and nods to the monster half-time bass lines and disco discipline of U.K. garage.

Where so much Brit-rap slavishly emulates American sounds, Skinner, despite being chiefly influenced by U.S. and Jamaican artists, is “passionately British”: He rhymes in an unaffected native accent, and his poetry is smothered in Limey colloquialisms (“Round ’ere we say birds, not bitches,” he proudly announces in “Let’s Push Things Forward”).

“From the start, I always felt like I couldn’t get away with tryin’ to be anything I wasn’t. I didn’t want to answer to anyone, defending why I wasn’t ‘me,’ and I suppose the paranoia of that kept me real . . . everything has to have happened to me at some point.”

Skinner’s slang traverses decades-old lingo — geezer (young man), chuffed (happy), barmy (insane) — and more recent Brit youth-speak — rude (sexy), rough (unattractive), mad (extremely) as well as a plethora of Brit-specific brand and place names. So how will the Streets’ wordplay translate across the pond?

“We’ve been listening to American music for years and learning what the slang is, so I think universal stories travel really well. But no, I never expected the Americans to wanna buy the Streets, and I think there’s always gonna be a ceiling on what we can achieve in America.”

Lazily labeled “the English Eminem” for his street-level white-boy viewpoint and sardonic wit, Skinner demonstrated a three-dimensional lyricism on Pirate Material alien to His Emness. While Skinner loves to bluntly chronicle life’s mundanities, he’s also able to tackle issues both micro and macro, grinding and grandiose, often within the same song. Pirate Material covered everything from loutish late-night antics in shabby ethnic restaurants to the hypocrisy of the British drug laws, using language from everyday brevity (“Your bird might fuck off or you might lose your job”), to tired MC chest-beating, to crudely cinematic Roman imagery reflecting Skinner’s unlikely fascination with greatness and discipline (“In the afterlife gladiators meet their maker/Float through the wheat fields and lakes of blue water”).

 

With a bigger budget at hand and great expectations to meet, Skinner would’ve been forgiven for further indulging his more bombastic designs with A Grand Don’t Come for Free (just released in the USA), but instead the album is disconcertingly underwhelming. Though it enters with, literally, a fanfare, the lyrical content immediately grounds any epic expectations: “Just take back the DVD/Withdraw that extra money/Tell mum I wouldn’t be back for tea.” Skinner delivers a depressingly detailed biographical work: numerous mentions of ATMs, ashtrays, broken TVs, and enough cell-phone minutiae to fill a T-Mobile manual. No panoramic worldviews this time, no puffed-up self-promotion. Grand is something of a lowbrow rap opera, starring Skinner, his mates down the pub, his missus and a missing thousand quid. It’s hardly The Wall, but it might be a new-millennium Quadrophenia, paranoia, betrayal and all. Back home, the Streets has the allure of those dour Brit soap operas and a market share to match: See, where American audiences tend to crave images of wealth and glamour to aspire to, Brit equivalents are drawn to portrayals of the everyday, finding reassurance in characters no better off than themselves.

But Grand’s revisionism is neither accident nor master plan: “Just to be different,” he mulls via phone in his chirpy yet pensive tone. “I always want to feel like I’m not repeating myself, and I don’t think that I’ll do personal experiences again.” The new release apparently chronicles the dilemmas of a maturing male (Skinner’s now 25), negotiating that tricky time when girlfriend prevails over mates, and the saminess and security of domestication beckon. But in fact the record was two years in the making, and Skinner’s personal life has changed little since his debut: “I think it’s more the story I’m tellin’ rather than the way I’m changin’. I mean, I’ve never been one for being single much, anyway.”

Grand is an even more eclectic musical journey than its predecessor, adding a curious take on T. Rex/Sweet early-’70s platformed rock (“Fit But You Know It”) and numerous multitracked attempts at semi-singing that recall Oliver and England’s faded seaside variety shows. Some of the all-the-lads-together chanting is annoying (“Not Addicted”), and Skinner continues to fare better communicating atmosphere rather than aggression. Yet the multiplicity doesn’t reflect pressure to better his debut: “It felt easier this time, because I had the support to do the things that I wanted. It was an environment where I could obsess over it, where I was allowed to obsess over it. And I put myself under more pressure than anyone else could put me under, anyway.”

On the face of it, the Streets is an establishment-bashing critical voice, and it’s easy to assume that Skinner’s the latest in a line of left-leaning Brit chart-toppers from the Clash and the Style Council to Chumbawumba. But Britain now has a (nominally) socialist government, so taking shots at that hardly makes you Che Guevara. In fact, Skinner takes a singular stance on almost everything, and offers the somewhat simplistic yet long-considered contemplations of the dedicated stoner: “The bottom line is they wanna be in power because it’s their living. So really, I think, you’ve just gotta do what people tell ya. I mean, the ideal situation would be for the government to ignore what the people say and do the best thing for the country, but I don’t think they’re going to do that — they’d get voted out.”

Skinner’s radar is much more sensitive to personal politics and urban social trends: Pirate’s standout social commentary, “Geezers Need Excitement,” while painting a disturbingly accurate portrait of Britain’s after-hours drunk-in-the-takeaway “lout culture,” also aims to illustrate the unchanneled energy of young blokes everywhere. “I think when a man approaches his teens,” says Skinner, “he’s built to start hunting, he’s built to start contributing, and he’s got all the desires to compete, but he’s nothing to take it out on. I think when kids are 13, they should be, y’know, competing in something — building cars or designing stuff out in the workplace. And then, when they get to 20, they have to go back to school, ’cause I just think that everyone suddenly realizes that education’s a good thing when they get to pretty much after the education age.”

Though the Streets’ rhymes reel off a pharmacy of controlled substances, drug culture’s not where Skinner’s fascination rests: “I don’t think it’s particularly interesting, I don’t really think it says anything, and I don’t think drugs help me creatively — I think they hinder me, actually. I like writing about drugs, because these are times that are exciting in our own minds, but no, I never make a song on drugs.”

The inside sleeve of Pirate Material includes a photo of a pallid Skinner, apparently in the back of a taxi, orphanlike in the darkness, distraught in expression, cell phone at ear. “I’m not lonely, but kinda . . . I mean, I’m in my own world, and I consider things on my own.” Skinner captures this with flotation-tank samples and words of gathering unease on Grand’s standout, “Blinded by the Light,” a narrative of his half-stoned search for no-show friends at an overcrowded rave. It’s an end-of-an-era betrayal story, one of those nights that in hindsight seem like signposts between the assumed trust of many in adolescence and the genuine trust of a few in adulthood.

Whether Mike Skinner is a true pioneer or, in Original Pirate Material, the creator of one generation-defining album remains to be seen. Though the weaker A Grand Don’t Come for Free can’t approach Pirate’s workingman majesty, the Streets’ sophomore effort may well reap the rewards of its predecessor’s rep.

The Streets plays the Wiltern LG on Saturday, June 12.


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